12 of London’s best female sommeliers and wine buyers
Based on our recently published guide to London’s top 50 most powerful sommeliers, we have picked out the top female sommeliers and wine buyers currently behind the wine lists at London’s top restaurants for wine.
The guide followed on from our Wine List Confidential Top 100 restaurants for wine in London – which ranks restaurants on the strength of its wine list alone – in May last year.
The people profiled in this latest guide have been ordered loosely according to the rankings of restaurants in last year’s Wine List Confidential.
Here, we have picked out the females that made that list. In other words their contribution to London’s on-trade, and their wine list at their respective establishments, was deemed to be among the best in the capital.
For more on the methodology and reasoning behind our top 50 sommeliers, click here.
You can see a full list of the top 50, along with a profile on their career and short Q&As on their life on the floor by clicking here.
Click through to see the women behind some of the best wine lists in London….
NB: Please note, this is a reproduction of profiles published in the Top 50 Most Influential Sommeliers 2019 guide. All roles were correct at time of publication (February), but are subject to change.
Isabelle Legeron – Wine consultant – Bibendum, Elliot’s, Neptune
A staunch advocate of natural wine, Isabelle Legeron MW founded Raw Wine in 2012, which has become the world’s largest community of low-intervention organic, biodynamic and natural wine producers.
Featuring annual fairs in London, Berlin, New York, Los Angeles and Montréal, Raw Wine is leading a global charge for low-intervention wines. For Legeron, the world’s best wines are natural, and that is all she personally drinks, she says. But while Legeron’s vinous path could be considered unconventional, her career began classically.
Having completed her WSET Diploma in 2003, Legeron went on to become a Master of Wine in 2009, and remains France’s only female MW. She won the Madame Bollinger award for Excellence in Tasting and the Villa Maria award for Viticulture following her MW studies, and in 2016 she was awarded the WSET’s first Outstanding Alumni Award, voted for by WSET Diploma graduates.
Since becoming an MW, and armed with a newfound platform, Legeron has made it her mission to raise the profile of natural wines and increase consumer awareness of sulphites in wine, while boosting routes to market for producers of wines that are made using natural farming methods and low-intervention techniques.
Her first book, Natural Wine: An introduction to organic and biodynamic wines made naturally, was shortlisted for the Fortnum & Mason Best Drinks Book, as well as the Louis Roederer and André Simon wine writing awards. Initially considered a “bit of a misfit” by her industry, Legeron’s work in wine is now internationally acclaimed, making her an influential force for natural wine.
Currently, she consults on the wine list at Bibendum Restaurant & Oyster Bar in Kensington), whose kitchen is managed by chef Claude Bosi, of the former two-Michelin starred Hibiscus in Mayfair, whose wine list was also managed by Legeron. She also oversees the lists at Borough Market’s Elliot’s, and The Richmond in Hackney. Most recently, she has been a driving force in the opening of the seafood-focused Neptune, on Russell Square, curating its wine list.
Adding to an already impressive CV, in 2017 she was chosen as one of the most innovative women in food and drink by Fortune, and as one of the 50 most influential French people in the world by Vanity Fair. When not working in wine, Legeron is happiest foraging for mushrooms and watching boxsets.
Melanie Brown – Wine buyer The Providores
If you are looking to have your eyes opened to the wonders of New Zealand wine, then Melanie Brown is the woman to call.
Since joining The Providores and Tapa Room in Marylebone, led by New Zealand fusion chef Peter Gordon, as a chef in 2005, Brown has carved a unique path in wine, also working as a sommelier at the restaurant, and later branching out into independent retail, while retaining a firm footing in London’s on-trade.
Brown credits Gordon with putting her on the path to wine, allowing her to look after the wine list while completing her WSET studies. Having worked her way up to the role of wine buyer at The Providores, Brown spread her wings in 2014 to found specialist retailer The New Zealand Cellar. A wine bar and shop at Pop Brixton followed in 2015, which is today home to one of the most comprehensive selections of premium New Zealand wine in the world.
It also offers private tastings and unrivalled winemaker events. “After trying to be a hard-ass chef for many years, I developed an unhealthy obsession with the intricacies of NZ wine, the breadth of the industry and the people behind the wines,” she says. “So, naturally, my world engineered its way to creating a platform that honoured the New Zealand wine industry.”
Throughout, Brown maintained her role as wine buyer at The Providores, curating an all-New Zealand list, with the exception of Champagne and Port. Brown’s dual role allows her to keep an eye on London’s on-trade, while gaining first-hand experience of the independent off-trade, through a Kiwi lens. Since launching, Brown’s focus has been on New Zealand, and her dedication to a specialism has seen her become a driving force for the country’s wines in London’s on- and off-trade, serving as an ambassador for the country and helping to push the conversation beyond Sauvignon Blanc.
Last year, she expanded her remit, bringing her new-found love of Australian wine to the UK with the launch of The Australian Cellar, an online collection of wines that will showcase the country’s new wave. The best part of her job? “Our ability to showcase the incredible people and wines that ensure NZ’s reputation as a premium wine-producing country,” she says.
“There is a sincerity and authenticity to the wines and people of our collection, and this makes me incredibly happy. The wine world is full of experiences, full of personality and full of amazing humans. No one day is ever the same, nor is each wine.”
Sunaina Sethi – Operations director and wine buyer JKS Restaurants
One third of the dynamic and ever-restless Sethi family, Sunaina is the wine buyer for all of the restaurants in their growing JKS portfolio, which includes the Michelin-starred Gymkhana and Trishna, as well as Sri Lankan pancake specialist Hoppers.
Today, Sunaina is in charge of some of London’s most innovative, daring and dynamic wine lists, and known for championing wines from lesser-known regions, such as Greece, Germany and the nascent wine industry of India. But she could just as easily have ended up a banker as a sommelier, had it not been for her brother, Karam. It was he who set the Sethi restaurant empire in motion, flying to Mumbai when he was 23 to strike a ‘brand agreement’ with the owner of Trishna – a celebrity hotspot of a seafood restaurant – which meant that the entrepreneur was able to use its name while owning the London restaurant outright.
A year later, in 2008, Trishna opened in Marylebone. Sunaina, meanwhile, had recently completed a business degree at Nottingham University, and a promising career in finance beckoned, which led her to Germany. But upon seeing the potential in her brother’s venture, which by now had the backing of her other, older brother, Jyotin – a former banker – Sunaina turned her back on finance and embarked on a career in wine at the age of 23.
She now looks after the wine lists for the siblings’ portfolio of restaurants, and is working towards her Level IV Master Sommelier Diploma, as awarded by the Court of Master Sommeliers.
While Gymkhana and Trishna are the jewels in its crown, the Sethi family has also played a hand in the success of an impressive roll call of London-based restaurants, as a partner to the likes of Michelin-starred Lyle’s, Sandia Chang and James Knappett’s Bubbledogs and Michelin-starred Kitchen Table, the hugely successful Bao restaurants in Soho and Fitzrovia, as well as Taiwanese restaurant Xu.
Last year, the group backed Sabor, from Nieves Barragán and José Etura, previously executive chef and group general manager respectively of Barrafina.
Most recently, the Sethi clan opened Brigadiers – an Indian barbecue, beer and whisky joint, inspired by the army mess bars of India – in the City.
Anne McHale – Wine consultant and educator – The Coral Room
Anne McHale MW began her career in the wine trade 15 years ago, working for companies as diverse as Mistral Wines, New Zealand Winegrowers and Berry Bros. & Rudd while studying for the WSET and then Master of Wine exams.
“My love of wine was sparked by my father, who, in 1969, founded the first student wine society in Queen’s University, Belfast. They got to drink great wines for free, since wine consumption wasn’t big in Northern Ireland then, and the wine trade wanted to change that. He talked about it all the time when I was growing up, and wine with dinner was normal for us. I went to Cambridge university and the first society I joined was the Wine Society.”
In 2006 she joined Berry Bros. & Rudd, where she worked for ten years in the Wine School team, initially in administration and event logistics, and later as an educator and events host. Whilst at Berry Bros. & Rudd she passed her Master of Wine qualification, in 2013.
While McHale stretches her talents in a variety of areas, including the on-trade and as a certified WSET educator, crafting a wine list is her favourite part of the job, and led her to take on her most recent challenge.
Three years ago McHale became an independent wine consultant, and has since been advising The Doyle Collection, owner of The Coral Room at the Bloomsbury Hotel in London, as well as many other bars and restaurants in the capital. Occupying the front room of the Grade II listed Bloomsbury Hotel, The Coral Room’s ‘country-meets-city’ drinks menu cleverly compliments the work of the building’s highly acclaimed architect, Sir Edward Lutyens, who is known for both his Arts and Crafts country mansions and city façades, including the British Medical Association in Tavistock Square and 67-68 Pall Mall.
Its wine list, meanwhile, pays particular attention to English sparkling wine, with 30 examples of the increasingly popular expression available by the bottle and six rotating regularly by the glass.
The menu showcases a wide variety of fizzes from places such as Buckinghamshire, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, East Sussex, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Kent, Oxfordshire, Somerset, Surrey, West Sussex and Worcestershire.
Currently on pour are Black Dog Hill’s Classic Cuvée 2014, Bolney’s Bubbly NV, Ridgeview ‘Bloomsbury’ Cuvée 2014, Cottonworth’s Classic Cuvée NV, Gusbourne Estate Brut Rosé 2014, and, Greyfriars Sparkling Rosé Reserve 2014.
Honey Spencer – Sommelier and wine consultant – Bastarda
Despite seeing the world of wine as a mammoth subject, this up-and-coming sommelier has thrown herself into the global dining scene in the past decade.
Spencer began her hospitality career with a bartending stint at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen after graduating from Kingston University with a 2:1 in International Business with languages, which gave her the chance to spend part of her education studying French literature in Paris. It is often said that one falls into the wine industry, and so it seemed for Spencer.
Her break came when one of the sommeliers was ill and she was asked to stand in. Soon after, the company offered to pay for her to go through the WSET. She achieved her Level 3 while still working with the Jamie Oliver Group, before going on to join Sager + Wilde in 2013.
An avid traveller, her love of wine was sparked by a bottle of 2002 Pascal Doquet Grand Cru Champagne she found while backpacking through New Zealand at the start of her career. Spencer’s job has taken her across the globe, helping diners select wines everywhere from Italian haunt 10 William Street in Sydney – a position she secured in 2016 – to Copenhagen wine bar Den Vandrette, where she worked as general manager for almost two years. Her time in Denmark saw her be spotted by the team at acclaimed restaurant Noma, and in 2017 she travelled to Mexico to undertake a three-month stint at the group’s Mexican pop-up.
Spencer joined Nuala in June 2017, and is an advocate of lesser-known grapes, telling Wine List Confidential that one of her main bugbears are guests who refuse to step out of their comfort zone when choosing from the menu. Her pursuit of the unique and exciting earned her the position of wine curator for Camp Kerala, a hospitality firm that provides glamping facilities for music festivals including Glastonbury.
While Nuala closed in Janaury of this year, Spencer remains a key influencer in London’s wine scene. She now helps the buying team at Abel & Cole, and teamed up in July with former Nuala chef Anaïs Van Manen to launch East-meets-West fusion pop-up Bastarda in Hackney Wick. She is also working with the owners of Michelin-starred Shoreditch restaurant Lyle’s to open a bakery that doubles as a wine bar called Flor. We can expect more daring combinations from this rising star in the years to come.
Neleen Strauss – Co-owner and wine buyer – High Timber
South African-born Neleen Strauss, co-owner of Thameside restaurant High Timber, takes a no-nonsense approach to the fine art of food-and-wine pairing. Becoming a sommelier, she told the drinks business, was “the natural process of being a waitress first and just getting deeper into the wine side of things. Food is better with wine, and people are also generally better with wine – so why not do what I love for a living?”
Outspoken and direct, Strauss made headlines in 2012 for hand-delivering a bill for £90,000 to the then Mayor of London Boris Johnson to protest against alleged losses of trade during the Olympics, claiming that turnover was knocked by 80% over the fortnight as workers abandoned The City during the tournament. “This is – give or take a few hundred pounds – what the Olympic Games have cost me in turnover since they began,” she said at the time. “And I have asked Boris Johnson to pay the bill personally, not from the seemingly limitless coffers that supported London 2012.”
Strauss loves working in London because it is “a diverse city that accepts anyone and anything”, but her fondest wine memories come from her homeland. She told us about the first time winery boss Gary Jordan spent a day with her at his Family’s estate in Stellenbosch, taking her through every stage of their winemaking process. And she ays her own fantasy vineyard would be in Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve, next to the Kruger Park.
She reckons she would be working as a game ranger if it weren’t for her love of vino. A lot has changed in the UK since Strauss moved here in 2001, most notably the consumers’ knowledge and interest in New World wines. “The web helped a lot for the average UK wine drinker to realise there’s life outside of France,” she says.
“The price point of fabulous wines from the New World also helped their sense of adventure.” The biggest lesson she’s learned on the job, like many of our influencers, is that the lesson is never over. If she could go back in time, she would tell her younger self to “be humble, learn, don’t assume and listen. And never be a loudmouth about cricket…”
Katie Exton – Co-owner and wine buyer – Lorne
Katie Exton began her career helping at English winery Breaky Bottom, followed by a stint at Majestic Wines. For more than 10 years she has worked as a sommelier in London, as head sommelier at Chez Bruce and The River Café. In 2017 she opened her own restaurant, Lorne, with chef Peter Hall, formerly of The Square.
Described as a “consummate professional with a sense of fun, contagious love for wine and an ability to explain it to almost anyone” by Wine List Confidential content editor Douglas Blyde, at Lorne, Exton offers a list that is fresh, balanced, affordable and highly drinkable. More than 50 of the bottles on offer cost £40 or less. Exton didn’t so much fall as dive head-first into the wine industry.
While a staffer at Majestic, the rising star met Terry Threlfall, then-head sommelier of chef Bruce Pool’s Michelin-starred Chez Bruce, in Wandsworth. It was Threlfall, she says, “who is really responsible for my early career as a sommelier”. She went on to work for Chez Bruce for seven years, until moving on to work for The River Cafe, and later The Square, where she met her current business partner, Peter Hall. The first bottle she fell in love with was a 1999 Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Pucelles – which can fetch upwards of £300 per bottle – that she “could’ve smelled for days”.
For Exton, the true joy of being a sommelier comes from “visiting producers, seeing the vineyards, hearing their stories and then coming back to Lorne and sharing all that I’ve learned with our guests.” With such a need to travel and explore, she said that the most important thing she has learned on the job is to always take photos, as “your memory isn’t as good as you think”.
Nevertheless, Exton describes Lorne’s wine list as “quite personal”, shedding some light on the bond she has forged, not only with co-owner Hall and manager Gianluca Bono, but also the winemakers and people behind the bottles she serves.
Laure Patry – Executive head sommelier – The Social Company
French-born Patry cut her teeth in the hospitality industry in the Loire. Studying catering, her teacher suggested she spend a year as a sommelier, so she did. “I took the challenge and fell in love with wine,” she says. Like many, she found the ability to turn a passion for wine into a job, that also allowed her to travel, meet the producers and relate their stories to customers, immensely appealing. Patry is a veteran of the London fine-dining scene, having worked for Gordon Ramsay for eight years, Claridge’s for two then Maze for six years before she joined Jason Atherton’s new venture in 2011.
By the age of 25, when Maze opened, she was in charge of the 14-strong team of sommeliers in a restaurant that was open seven days of the week, every day of the year. No mean feat. As such she’s picked up a thing or two about dealing with people. Contrary to the long-held belief that somms are just there to suggest, sip and spit wine, Patry knows a sommelier has to appraise their customer as much as the wine they might be suggesting. And also never discuss price, a lesson learned rather abruptly one evening at Claridge’s (see right-hand page).
She’s also been at the heart of a huge shift in tastes and explosion of styles and movements within wine itself. She is a firm believer in ‘natural wines’, in the sense of wines that are, “low intervention, that express the terroir and that are made without chemicals”. Patry notes that there is also interest from customers who are trying things like orange wines – at least by the glass. On the other hand, some of the more traditional styles are becoming a little less interesting in comparison.
“I am going less and less towards Bordeaux at the moment, and struggling with some of the prices of Burgundy,” she remarks. So what does she think can take its place? If you’re Patry, it’s very clear that Jura is being very under-used, with its Chardonnay and Poulsard providing value and variety to a list. Looking ahead to the next challenge, Patry is currently digging into the wide and varied world that is saké.
Sabrina Manolio – Head sommelier – Margot
Italian wine is one of the world’s great joys and also one of its greatest headaches. It’s claimed that even most Italians don’t fully understand it, but one who does, luckily, is Sabrina Manolio at Covent Garden restaurant Margot.
Previously based at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, Manolio is, naturally, equally well versed in French wines too. While it may be an Italian restaurant, Margot is not slavishly devoted to only offering up drops from her home country. Although Italian wines make up the bulk of the 350-bin list (about 45%), the rest are split between the Old and New Worlds, with an especially strong Champagne component. This is all excellent stuff to play with for someone like Manolio, whose mantra is that wine is central to any restaurant experience. There’s nothing sadder, in her opinion, than the refusing hand placed over a glass. “I would prefer to stay home rather than go to the restaurant and have tap water to complement my dish,” she says.
You get her point when she begins enthusing about matching Alsatian Gewürztraminer with pumpkin and ricotta ravioli or Isola e Olena’s Chardonnay with smoked eel and roasted pineapple. For Manolio there’s nothing better than finding a customer to share ‘the moment’ with, and that makes the back and forth between a sommelier and diner intrinsic to the evening. “The guest that you can laugh with and know you made their visit more special is great, and after a tough day at work you’re kind of satisfied and proud of what you have done,” she explains.
In part this is thanks to her love of passing on knowledge. If it hadn’t been for wine and the hospitality trade, she reckons she would have continued her studies and carved out a career as a teacher instead. “I love the idea of passing on what’s ‘mine’ to others.” In that vein she’s keen to take in everything she possibly can and not miss a thing, because, she says: “I would prefer to regret something I did rather than something I wished I could have done.”
Christine Parkinson – Group head of wine – Hakkasan Group
When your kitchen catches fire in the luxury hotel in which you work and the newly jilted head waiter runs amok with a cleaver just as the general manager walks in with his young family for lunch – and it’s Christmas Day, you want someone like Christine Parkinson on hand to steady the ship.
A tried-and-tested industry veteran, Parkinson was on course for the world of astrophysics (she studied maths and physics) when she fell, as so many do, into the world of wine and hospitality. Starting as a chef, then a food-and-beverage manager, Parkinson created the first wine list for modern Cantonese restaurant Hakkasan when it opened in 2001, followed by one of the first saké lists in the UK for Japanese restaurant and bar, Sake No Hana in St James’s.
Hailed by Jancis Robinson MW as “one of the most creative wine buyers in the UK”, Parkinson is the head of the Hakkasan Group’s wine and saké buying worldwide, juggling an extraordinary portfolio of labels and flavours in one of the most lauded restaurant groups anywhere in the world.
Her lists have been similarly praised by a wide variety of publications – not least Wine List Confidential, which described her list as deep and detailed with quirky titles such as ‘Curious Vines: Distinctive Wines’, and for Champagne, ‘Late Disgorged’. A consummate wine educator, not only of the staff under her charge but the trade and public at large, she is a certified WSET educator, and has run wine and saké courses for the staff at Hakkasan’s restaurants on three continents. When not sipping on Honey Jun – the “Champagne of kombuchas” – Parkinson is never happier than with cheese on toast and a glass of blanc de blancs Champagne.
Sandra Bein – Head sommelier – Mere
Born into the hospitality industry, having grown up in her parent’s family-run hotel in Austria, Sandra Bein was initially reluctant to continue working in the business. Won over by a visit to a local catering college, however, she bowed to the inevitable and chose to pursue a career in food and drink. After graduating, she worked in various four-star hotels in Tyrol, Austria’s alpine state. Inspired by one of the restaurant managers, she began studying to become a sommelier, and her passion for wine was born.
Moving to London in 2013, having been lured by Le Gavroche’s extensive wine list, Bein became a sommelier there, relishing the chance to work under sommelier David Galetti. Moving to join him and his wife, Monica, at their new restaurant, Mere, was a logical step, and Bein was front of house as head sommelier at its opening in 2017. For Bein, stripping out the jargon from wine is important. The wine list is encased in a folder made from cork and features the bespoke Mere typeface for its headings. “Passion is what it’s all about,” she says. “What’s important is that it’s easy and understandable.”
Consequently, the wine list at Mere is organised by grape variety rather than region, “from good-value, easy-drinking wines to classic appellations such as Sancerre and Châteuneuf-du-Pape, to indigenous Rotgipfler and Negroamaro”, she says. Alongside the Old World classics are a strong selection from New Zealand via the likes of a zippy, lime-laced Wild Earth Riesling 2016 from Central Otago and a Chenin Blanc from Gisborne’s Millton Vineyards.
The restaurant also has its own grand cru Champagne, called Mere sur Mesure from Duval Leroy. Bein lists the blanc de blancs sparkler for £65 a bottle. Crafted by Bein, alongside David Galetti, the restaurant has an impressive two-page reserve list including the likes of R.D. Bollinger, Coche-Dury, and ready-to-go first growths. It is also noted for its by-the-glass offering, with Coravin enabling around 50 wines to be sampled in smaller measures. Bein’s influence can also be seen in the number of Austrian wines that grace the list, from a Chardonnay from Markus Huber, Weingut Prieler’s Pinot Blanc Seeberg and Sankt Laurent from Johanneshof Reinisch.
Sandia Chang – Co-owner and sommelier – Bubbledogs & Kitchen Table
Chef-turned-sommelier Sandia Chang is from California. She moved to train at the internationally acclaimed Culinary Institute of America in New York, and chalked up stints at René Redzepi’s Noma in Copenhagen and Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York (where she met her husband, James Knappett) before moving to London in 2010.
Before founding Bubbledogs, and later Kitchen Table, Chang was assistant manager and wine buyer at Simon Rogan’s first Roganic iteration, and assistant manager at Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley.
Experience at some of the world’s most respected restaurants led her to found Bubbledogs in 2012 with Knappett. Based at 70 Charlotte Street in Fitzrovia, Chang took on the role of general manager and sommelier, while Knappett manages proceedings behind the pass.
Once unlikely bedfellows, Bubbledogs’ formula of grower Champagne and gourmet hot dogs made it an instant hit. So much so that the couple’s fine-dining concept, Kitchen Table, opened in a private dining room at the back of the restaurant shortly after, and was awarded a Michelin star in 2014. It has just picked up a second star in the 2019 edition of the Guide, which Chang described as “a bit surreal”. The 19-seat venue, set around a stainless-steel bar, features a 12- to 14-course tasting menu that changes daily.
It is Chang’s work behind the scenes, however, that is less known. Making a point of knowing each of her suppliers personally, she makes regular visits to small-scale producers in Champagne, constantly on the lookout for wines to list.
Her charm and warmth has seen her become a regular wine presenter on the long-running BBC series Saturday Kitchen, during which she selects the best-value supermarket wines to pair with dishes cooked by top chefs live on air.
In recognition of her work, she was awarded ‘best front of house’ at the GQ Food and Drink Awards this year, while she and Knappett also picked up the ‘welcome and service award’ from Michelin. The Guide said that “they proved there could be harmony between the kitchen and service teams”.
She has been praised by contemporaries such as cocktail maverick Ryan Chetiyawardana, for her “encyclopaedic knowledge” and “understanding of how important fun is when dealing with world-class offerings”.